Exploitation in Mexico’s Tourism Industry

Two year old boy carries items for sale along beach to attract tourists
Two year old boy carries items for sale along beach to attract tourists

As well as the illicit drug trade, Mexico is increasingly known as a global destination for sexual tourism controlled by the organised crime cartels. Beneath this lies systemic issues with sex trafficking and various forms of labour exploitation of adults and children. Despite being a despicable crime, sexual exploitation is seen as a profitable business because “you can only sell a drug once, but you can sell a woman countless times”, quoting Mario Hidalgo Garfias, a convicted human trafficker from Mexico City in 2015. 


Significant cases that have brought the Mexican sex tourism industry to light are the raids in Toluca in November 2017 where 24 foreign women, mostly Venezuelans were released from captivity in a ‘spa’ that offered prostitution. Under similar circumstances, on 30th of July 2020 Mexican Federal Police raids on spas in Cancun and Playa del Carmen freed 21 women (21-25 years old) leading to charges against 12 human traffickers. This case gained media attention due to protests erupting in the aftermath of the raid, which shined light on the chronic issue of impunity in Mexico. 

In both cases, these women have traveled to Mexico on tourist visas, under the promise of highly paid legitimate jobs, and then forced into sex work under the threat of violence, fraud, force or control. These control mechanisms of exploitation are also present in other Mexican industries such as agriculture, domestic service, child care, manufacturing, mining, food processing, construction, tourism, begging, and street vending, compromising vulnerable women, children, men and gender fluid people. 

Most trafficking victims are migrants from as far as Europe, as well as neighbouring countries in Central and South America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and high numbers from Venezuela where ongoing political turmoil makes women and children vulnerable to exploitation. Reports of child sexual exploitation is an increasing problem in northern Mexico, where homeless or orphan children are of high risk, and in several cases parents are complicit in the exploitation of their children. Transgender communities of all ages are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The US Department of State reports the users of sexual tourism generally travel from the USA, Canada and Western Europe, and occasionally include Mexican Nationals. 

Whilst on vacation, many tourists purchase memorabilia clothing and other items without hesitation from sellers on the beach. HTMSE is alarmed to see the high number of minors being used in the familiar context in conditions that contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Many minors are being forced into labour, carrying heavy goods in sweltering heats including clothing, coconuts, and food. Many are laden with huge weights of goods, and are being used to attract tourists to purchase these items. These are not conducive conditions for a child. Tourists are fuelling and normalising this practice, whereas in their country of origin it would be illegal, for example in Britain parents could face prosecution.

It is evident that the internet is increasingly used as a vice for trafficking, either via recruitment on social media, or using crypto-currencies to launder payment. This form of contact is used to anonymously set up employment related traps, target victims through false intimate partnerships, or exercise blackmail and coercion through reaching family members of the victims.


In the most recent reporting period of 2021 Mexico lies in tier 2 of the USDOS Trafficking in Persons report, meaning that it does not meet the basic requirements for combatting human trafficking. However, despite the drawback presented by the pandemic, Mexico has increased efforts since the 2020 reporting period. 

In 2020 the Mexican state investigated 332 suspected sex trafficking cases, 12 suspected forced labour cases, and 206 unspecified cases of exploitation. There were a total of 75 federal prosecutions of human traffickers, which accounts for approximately half as many as 2019. Unfortunately, this is likely due to the pandemic as federal and state courts suspended all legal proceedings between March and May 2020. This also hampered efforts of authorities to collect evidence from bars, hotels and sex tourism venues, and halted or slowed requests for information to pursue prosecutions, and disrupted intergovernmental collaboration on existing and new investigations. 

Positive efforts in the Mexican response to human trafficking included bolstering the Secretariat of Finance’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) which is a key institution to collect intelligence around trafficking investigations and prosecutions. In July 2020 a cooperation agreement was signed with the National Anti-trafficking Hotline which facilitated the collection of data from calls to trace illicit financial activity connected to trafficking. Flagging several suspicious transactions successfully led to several arrest warrants for human traffickers. 

In 2020 the Mexican state provided funding to three victim shelters run by NGOs, but overall their response lacks a victim centred approach. Most states rely on prosecutors to identify and refer victims. State agencies in partnership with NGOs offer medical care, food, and housing in temporary or transitional homes, and other services, such as psychological, and legal services, but this is heavily varied and unavailable in some parts of the country, and often excludes victims or forced labour or male victims of exploitation. 

Mexican law provides protection against forced criminality of trafficking victims, however due to issues around formal identification there are potential cases where authorities have detained or jailed victims of trafficking. This includes children involved in gang related criminal activity and migrants in detention facilities, who have been compelled to commit crimes by their traffickers. Furthermore, victims have been withheld justice due to their lack of faith in corrupt authorities and public sector officials. 

There is a significant problem of impunity in Mexico which helps to facilitate human trafficking and in turn, the sex tourism industry. The 2019 USDOS Trafficking in Persons report highlights that in at least 17 of the 32 Mexican states, there are alliances between criminal groups and federal, state and local government officials. These officials collude in trafficking crimes such as immigration officials accepting bribes to allow irregular entry of trafficking victims into Mexico, yet in other cases explicitly participate in and run sex trafficking operations. An example of law enforcement abusing their authority for sexual exploitation was seen in the case of human rights activist Karla Jacinto. In 2015 she reported that at 12 years old, she was forced into prostitution for four years and during this period when police turned up at the hotel she was held, they made the customers leave in order to film the girls in compromising positions, and blackmailed the girls into submission by threatening to send the videos to their families. In 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received 6 claims of trafficking related abuses by public officials. Unlike 2019, there were no prosecutions or convictions of officials in 2020. 


A significant development in human trafficking response in Mexico is through the binational anti-trafficking hotline set up in 2015 between US’ NGO Polaris and Mexican organisation Consejo Ciudadano based in Mexico City. This collaborative approach encourages citizens to file complaints, and in 2020 reported receiving 1,931 calls related to trafficking, which led to identification of 245 victims, and resulted in 45 investigations. This binational approach is essential for a problem that crosses national borders and involves several jurisdictions. 

Furthermore, the “Corazón Azul” or Blue Heart Campaign in Mexico was set up in 2010 in partnership with UNODC which is designed as a ‘pact’ to mobilise social conscience around human trafficking, sexual and other forms of exploitation. It is composed of a set of moral principles for the public to understand and agree to. Annually, buildings are lit up blue to raise awareness. Recently in 2021 there has been significant effort through this campaign to reach indigenous communities who are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

BINATIONAL TRAFFICKING HOTLINE:  https://contratados.org/es/node/35331 

Statistics pulled from the 2021 USDOS Trafficking in Persons Report. For the full report, see here. 

The Significant Role of Healthcare Providers in Human Trafficking Identification

A 2014 study reported 88/100 of sex trafficking victims came into contact with a healthcare department during their exploitation
A 2014 study reported 88/100 of sex trafficking victims came into contact with a healthcare department during their exploitation

There is growing awareness of the key role that the healthcare sector plays in identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking. Due to the vast forms of exploitation, many dangerous scenarios lead to numerous physical injuries from STD’s of sex workers, to injury operating  heavy machinery on mine sites, and exposure to hazardous chemicals,  malnourishment and osteoporosis. Furthermore, trafficking victims often suffer from significant mental health and physical trauma as a result of their exploitation. Currently, in hospitals around the world, systems of identification exist for child abuse and domestic violence, yet limited procedures exist to identify and support trafficking and modern slavery survivors. Both the UK and the US are implementing policy to work with healthcare professionals to provide the necessary care and support for trafficking victims.

According to reports by trafficking survivors, many entered the healthcare system at some point during their process of exploitation. A survey in 2014 suggested 88/100 of the sex trafficking victims came into contact with an emergency healthcare department. These scenarios are critical opportunities that are missed if healthcare staff are not trained to identify victims of trafficking. However, this is not a simple or obvious process, as many of victims face difficult situations. They may not be open with the professionals if they have self doubt or are not yet aware they are being exploited, they are afraid of the repercussions of giving information regarding their situation, or they are accompanied by a supervisor to prevent details being communicated to authorities.

To deal with such situations, training is given to doctors, nurses but also a wider circle of healthcare providers that have come into contact with victims, including social workers, security guards and receptionists. These employees have the capacity to intercept victims, spot the important indicators, such as if the healthcare needed has been put off for several weeks, to spot inconsistencies in information or repeat injuries. They will then ask a number of leading questions to encourage victims to receive help. These questions may entail whether the patient “has ever had sex for money” or “whether they give someone else part of what they earn”.

Dignity Health has human trafficking program in over 40 hospitals in the USA, in which the core goals “are to ensure that trafficked persons are identified in the health care setting and that they are appropriately assisted with victim-centered, trauma-informed care and services”. They are “implemented first in Dignity Health emergency departments, followed by labour & delivery and postpartum departments”. In particular, there is a new diagnostic tool that can be used to identify and record umbers of trafficking against other abuse victims.

The UK are also developing systems to address the role of healthcare in trafficking survivors. The NHS Human Trafficking e-Learning Tool assists in identification and care of trafficking victims. It is aimed to train healthcare staff by outlining various scenarios of trafficking and how to appropriately cover the legal rights to medical care of trafficking victims. The aim is to inform and prepare front line staff to provide thorough support when confronted with cases of human trafficking.

In terms of victim support for survivors of human trafficking in the UK, the healthcare system is only available to victims within the 45 day reflection and recovery period of the National Referral Mechanism, after which governmental and healthcare assistance ends and survivors are vulnerable to re-trafficking and exploitation. In a report by Dr. Carole Murphy, she explains that the “system and its processes and procedures are not fit for purpose and have the potential to cause harm to survivors through re-traumatisation, falling through gaps in service provision and potential re-exploitation.”

The International Organisation for Migration and UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking also provide guidance on recommendations for victim care within all jurisdictions. They provide the report Caring for Trafficked Persons: A Guide for Health Providers in which they suggest careful treatment from healthcare providers can be fundamental in the recovery of abused and traumatised victims. It aims to provide guidance in recognising the common health problems and diagnosis associated with trafficking and the most safe and appropriate way to undergo treatments.

It is clear that the healthcare system plays a fundamental role in both human trafficking identification, as well as on going survivor support. The issue is unfortunately, if victims are not willing to give up information then there’s little support healthcare providers can give, hence, the way in which victims are spoken to and dealt with must be in careful and diligent manor after going through specialist training.

Further information and official reports on medical resources for professionals working with trafficking victims, see our eLearning resource.

Accountability Needed for Internet Service Providers: Sex Trafficking and the Case of Backpage.com

Backpage’s involvement is reported in 73% of all child trafficking cases received from the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited ChildrenIn an exponentially expanding era of cyber activity, new channels for criminal activity are being facilitated. A particular area of concern is within the use of the Internet for human trafficking and in particular sexual exploitation, in which the US case of Backpage.com has received much international attention.

Earlier this year the notorious website was shutdown by the US Department of Justice. Backpage.com is the world’s second largest classified ad marketplace where 90% of the websites’ revenue is generated from ‘ads’ relating to sexual promotion, including child sexual exploitation and forced prostitution. Based in its Dallas Texas HQ with global operations out of 97 countries with 943 locations, the last reported value of Backpage.com was over half a billion US dollars. It has been the subject of on going concern for US authorities, as Backpage’s involvement is reported in 73% of all child trafficking cases received from the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The United States Senate’s report Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking following the 2 year investigation indicates three major findings:

  1. Backpage has concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads. Over the last 10 years and as recently as 2014, Backpage executives have had several methods of formalised ‘deletion of incriminating words and phrases, primarily through a feature called the “Strip Term From Ad Filter.”’ Words removed by both manual and automatic systems included “lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “amber alert,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” and “school girl.” Through rewording advertisements, the client could submit the ad with the same criminal intention and usage, yet presented with ‘legal’ content.
  2. Backpage is fully aware of the fact that it facilitates illegal prostitution and child sex trafficking. It has refused to respond to complaints and manipulated information sent to NCMEC.
  3. Despite the sale of the website to an anonymous foreign company in 2014, the real owners are James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and Carl Ferrer.

Bradley Myles CEO of Polaris Project made a statement on this case, in which he commented that “shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term. Traffickers will have to rethink their business models and sex buyers will face greater risk.” He highlighted the fact that the multimillion-dollar industry leader cannot claim ‘ignorance’ as to the human trafficking they are facilitating and must be held personally liable.

This response relates to previous attempts to shutdown Backpage.com. For example in 2016, the CEO, Carl Ferrer and fellow executives were arrested on ‘pimping related charges’. However, this attempt at prosecution was unsuccessful, protected under the US Constitution and legislation that deemed Backpage.com having no liability for the speech of third parties who posted the ads on their site. The US Communications Decency Act (CDA) 1996 was implemented as an attempt to regulate internet pornography, but under Section 230 has been interpreted to shield operators of Internet services, and thus they are not legally or criminally liable for the content of third parties who use their services. This defence has been used several times to leave Backpage.com operating, despite the obvious facilitation of sex trafficking. To overcome this on going loophole, the Trump administration has amended this legislation through their Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 to put the onus of responsibility onto the website host for information relating to sex trafficking.

The concern over this legislation has primarily been voiced by free speech and internet advocates including the Silicon Valley Internet Association who are lobbying against it, as it has wider implications for their own accountability for illicit content created by users. The CDA legislation is seen as a primal statute for Internet development, which has put pressure on large ‘legitimate’ tech companies including as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Google has put forward a number of solutions they are contributing, including blocking Backpage.com advertising from their remit and developing technology to help scan for rouge sites. Ultimately, however, these technologies have not been successful in stopping the operation of sex promotion that is currently ‘protected’ by the US constitution, and therefore legal measures need to be adjusted.

In analysis, the core of the issue is transferring the onus of responsibility onto the owner/s of websites that may be used for illegal activity, as they are ultimately benefitting from the exploitation facilitated by their website (whether within or out of their knowledge).  Although the issue is complex and there are no tangible supply chains in an online system, the legislation ruling cyber security must mimic the template of recent Modern Slavery Legislation (e.g. in the UK), where the benefiters (i.e. corporations) must be responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain in the same way that website facilitators must be held accountable for abuses that are associated with their website’s network.

For the full report United States Senate’s report Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking, read here.